A few weeks ago, I visited the amazing National Railway Museum in York for the first time. If you’ve never been, it’s definitely worth the trip – you don’t have to be mad about trains! There are some fascinating exhibits relating to the Victorian era, the expansion of the railways in Britain and how the passenger experience changed.
Victorian railways reinforced the Victorian social structure with a choice of first and second class carriages; third class was not offered until late 1838. At the National Railway Museum, it was wonderful to see some early surviving carriages from this era for the Bodmin & Wadebridge Railway. There is a composite first and second-class carriage that would originally have been exclusively first-class. The first-class passengers had upholstered seats while in second-class, they had to make do with wooden seating. You can sit in the second-class section of the composite carriage which gives an amazing feel for the past and how little legroom there would have been, even without the added problem of voluminous petticoats and crinolines!
This is what an ordinary second-class carriage would have looked like with a window in the door only:
Coupled next to the composite carriage is the third-class accommodation, more reminiscent of a cattle truck than a carriage.
Dating from 1896, this image captioned ‘the oldest rolling stock in England from the Bodmin & Wadebridge Branch, London & South Western Railway, in use for fifty years ‘ may show the same or similar carriages to those in the National Railway Museum:
Passengers travelling by train in the 1830s and 1840s had to be a hardy lot. Compartments were unheated, even in first class, although there was a foot warmer for these better-off passengers. In The Early Victorians at Home, Elizabeth Burton describes how noxious these carriages were at night, as they were illuminated ‘by an evil-smelling and dripping oil lamp fixed in the roof’. The cushions in first-class carriages were also inclined to catch the dust from the steam engine.
Second-class carriages had a roof but were open at the sides. Wrapping up warm with a rug, cap and cloak was essential, as was an umbrella. ‘A Constant Traveller’ wrote to the Leicester Chronicle in 1843 about the ‘miserably cold and wretchedly devised carriages’. He commented: ‘The day was windy and wet, the rain poured in so heavily that a pool of water above an inch deep deluged the floor, and…most of the passengers…were wet through, not being provided with any protective clothing.’
The early third-class carriages were little more than cattle trucks with no roof and hard wooden seats. This mirrored the experience of third-class passengers on the top of a stagecoach, but railway travellers also had to contend with the hazards of smoke, soot and cinders.
A passenger travelling from London to Liverpool via Birmingham on the Grand Junction line wrote to the Leeds Mercury in 1841, complaining of the third-class accommodation: ‘I witnessed several instances in and near the carriage in which I was placed, of clothing, umbrellas &c being burnt and utterly spoiled by the ashes from the engine, some pieces the size of a walnut being precipitated, red-hot, into the midst of us. In fact, on arriving at Birmingham, if the seat and floor of that part of the carriage in which I rode had been swept, not less than half a pint of cinders might have been gathered.’
Despite the sub-standard accommodation, railway travel was hugely popular. According to the Railway Times, in the first six months of 1839, the London to Birmingham railway carried 267,527 people. In eight months, the line between Sheffield and Rotherham attracted 330,000 passengers. The Morning Chronicle (1844) reported: ‘Last week, some of the Yorkshire railways offered the public of the West Riding a trip down to Liverpool and back for a few shillings a place, and though the accommodation in the carriages was no better than that given to cattle on the Liverpool and Manchester line, yet no less than five thousand persons availed themselves of this opportunity of visiting Liverpool and the sea!’
After 1844, railway companies were forced to provide roofs on all third-class carriages under new legislation. At least one train every weekday had to run for third-class passengers, stopping at every station along the line. From this time, lighting was also provided in third-class carriages although there was only a single oil lamp per carriage, compared with several in each first-class carriage.
Before 1868, it was not possible for passengers to communicate with the guard if they had a problem, and it was not until the 1890s that they could walk from one compartment to another along a corridor. The corridor walkway became more common after the early 1900s when lavatories started to be introduced on trains. In 1875, the Midland Railway abolished second-class travel altogether and upgraded third-class passengers to second-class standards; it also reduced the fares in first class. Other railways followed suit to keep up with the competition. Around the same time, dining cars were introduced for wealthy passengers. Later in the nineteenth century, long distance trains started to offer refreshment baskets for the less well-off.
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